A view from North Block
Memoir relating the inside story of the reforms and the opposition that tried to derail the process
CONFESSIONS OF A SWADESHI REFORMER — My Years as Finance Minister: Yashwant Sinha; Penguin/Viking, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,
New Delhi-110017. Rs. 450.
Yashwant Sinha has a high opinion of himself, his skills, competence, and commitment to Mother India. His Confessions of a Swadeshi Reformer is meant, one suspects, to settle a score or two with his many critics. The result is a blotchy book.
Sinha does give a fair idea of the budget-making exercise and, the nature of interaction and trust that must take place between a finance minister and his prime minister. However, serious students of governmental process will complain that Sinha gives us the barest of glimpses into the policy debates within the Vajpayee government but stops way short of giving a minutiae of arguments and positions, how and who tipped the final outcome, who would produce a stalemate in the first place and then would work the system to resolve the stalemate in a particular direction.
This is also a patchy book. There are any number of wonderful but unelaborated gems interspersed throughout the book — each one potentially more than a piece of the larger puzzle—but Sinha simply teases the reader and never reveals the seamy or spicy details.
For instance, he recalls that after the 1999 general election, a proposal was made (does not explain by whom) to bifurcate the Home Ministry: “The suggestion was that the Department of Internal Security could become a separate ministry. When this issue came up, Advani put his foot down and the proposal was nipped in the bud then and there.” Just a bare minimum glimpse of machinations afoot and then the trail is allowed to dry up.
Also, Sinha talks of a proposal to split the Finance Ministry three ways — a Ministry of Finance (consisting of department of economic affairs), a Ministry of Expenditure and a Ministry of Revenue. Sinha resisted and suggested that he was prepared to leave rather than preside over a truncated ministry. “I did not care to find out who were the people behind this move.” Or why was Advani keen to foist Mohan Guruswamy as an adviser on Sinha.
The book serves a serious purpose in so far as Sinha points out, perhaps unwittingly, a leadership’s dilemma in resolving the conflict between its own past rhetoric, political commitment and ideological posturing, and the compulsions and constraints in operationalising the Indian state order.
Sinha talks how he repeatedly ran into difficulties with some of his own colleagues in the sangh parivar. On opening up the insurance sector: “My proposal, however, met with severe opposition from many of my colleagues. They felt that we were going back on all that we had stood for in the past, that the proposal involved a major departure from our philosophy and that it was anti-swedeshi. There was hardly any support for my proposal…”
The problem is that he glosses over the political economy of the Vajpayee phenomenon. He proceeds on a somewhat naive assumption as if vested economic interests and corporate houses had no role in sponsoring the Vajpayee premiership from 1998 onwards. Vajpayee could not be allowed to move away from the “economic reforms” course and it was Sinha’s job to deliver. But the BJP crowd refused to move away from the anti-reform, anti-globalisation slogans of the early 1990s.
Biases at work
Sinha himself believed that he could easily switch from being a swadeshi pamphleteer to a servant of global corporate interests and would not attract any opposition: “Unfortunately, my views were not appreciated by many other proponents of swadeshi, despite my repeated efforts to explain it to them. An impression gathered ground that, while I started as a staunch supporter of swadeshi, I changed course and became an advocate of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation.”
Sinha recounts many frustrating moments as Vajpayee’s Finance Minister. He chafes at being nicknamed “roll-back Sinha”. However, he does not draw the simple lesson: good intentions and even self-proclaimed patriotic commitments are not enough. A self-advertised ‘deshbhakt’ does not ipso facto become an achiever or doer; nor does RSS orientation equip an administrator with a magic wand that would make disappear entrenched bureaucratic habits and aberrations.
However, to his credit Sinha gives the impression of remaining his own man, not easily troubled by the critics, in and out of the party. He does see through the so-called civil society’s deceit: “People who belong to the tax-paying class, like the middle class, industrialists, journalists and high net worth individuals — those who are the opinion makers in our society — praise a finance minister who gives them concessions, and criticises the one who imposes a burden on them. It is as simple as that.” His party continues to refuse to see the class and elitist biases at work in the dominant sections of the Indian media.
It is a book that should be made compulsory reading to all the middle and senior BJP functionaries, the party’s allies and its apologists who continue as fearless warriors, armed with iron will and purest of intentions, and burning love of Mother India. Governing India was never an easy task. Sinha can tell them that slogans do not provide solutions.
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